On finding the feminist community you didn’t know existed 

Anwulika Okonjo: “People need to know the depth and complexity of our thoughts.”

Image credit: Anwulika Okonjo

Anwulika (Anwuli) Okonjo is a 22 year old African feminist and gender justice activist from Nigeria committed to affirming young womens’ right to be the architects of their lives and their societies. She’s the founder of Through The Eyes of African Women (TEAW) and Reading to Transgress, a TEAW project. She is currently uncovering her voice as a writer and advocate through her work on her thesis on young Nigerian women and the politics of imagination. She’s interested in how young Nigerians are shaping alternative imaginaries and politics that center communities, collective power and values that counter the state’s centralizing power. Recently, she’s been interviewing diverse African feminists for her thesis at Duke University and is working on a public project to showcase their stories.  

The following interview was transcribed by Prii Sen and condensed and edited by Ani Hao for brevity and clarity.

New Wave: In general in New Wave I always ask questions about, how did you begin to identify as a feminist (and so on), so I was going to already ask you about your extended background. Feel free to say whatever you want to say. 

Anwuli: I moved to South Africa [from Nigeria] when I was younger, then the UK and now I’m in the US. I started Through the Eyes of African Women (TEAW) like two years ago. Essentially what happened was, I started at Duke (University) and I felt really disconnected from who I was and my community. I knew I was coming to this university to study so I could go home and make things better or whatever. But I think I really kind of fell into studying African feminist movements because I was trying to find my own voice. 

Essentially, I started TEAW because, actually, I wanted to research African philosophy. I got this book that was written by an African feminist, an Igbo woman on African philosophy and family. That was my first introduction to African feminist thinking. Prior to that, I’d never really encountered any academic work [on] African women. Let me backtrack.

I was looking for a way to connect back home. To understand the women in my life, to understand my life, and to do it in a way that made sense for the particular position that I was in - not being in Nigeria constantly. The work that I do is directly related [to] and is completely about supporting feminists on the continent, [since] a huge part of our network is the diaspora. So it was me thinking, okay, how do I do that type of work but at the same time recognize where I’m at in my life and who I’m able to reach out to, and what sort of community I would be able to build not being in Nigeria, and what is my responsibility in all this. 

I struggle to talk about myself whereas when it comes to talking about the things that I care about, it’s a lot easier. And I know the whole, tell [us], what’s your feminist journey and how did you discover feminism or whatever is a really common question and I still haven’t figured out how to actually tell that story. It’s not a linear thing, it’s so many different things that culminated into being where I’m at right now. 

That’s a very common response. I think it’d be very rare to have one singular breakthrough or defining experience. A lot of people talk about multiple experiences that they’ve had. Maybe you can just talk a little bit more about your childhood and your background. 

Yeah, that’s actually a big part of it. I come from a family that’s [made of] really, really strong women, and I was surrounded by women my entire life. I went to all-girls schools, all-girls boarding schools, all-girls day schools. But even then, I never felt like I was this sort of person that - I was really quiet, and my experiences as a girl were never - I didn’t experience any distinct sexism or anything like that. Most of my consciousness or radical consciousness came from experiences with race. You know, just being in Nigeria versus South Africa and the UK, experiencing Blackness differently everywhere. 

I think my feminism is really grounded in racial consciousness and becoming aware of colonization and things like that. I was always aware that there are things that I can’t do because I’m a girl, or there are ways that I’m treated differently. But it was more so about experiencing myself as a Black woman, as a Black girl in the world. I was already a feminist by the time I got to college and I introduced myself to African feminist thinkers. 

But it was the first time [in university], I felt that these are people who not only are speaking to the racial problems that I see in the world, the problems with colonization, white supremacy, and neoliberalism - even though I didn’t necessarily have those words, I was just starting to learn them - and at the same time, they’re helping me understand even more what it means for all of these things to be compounded in my experiences as an African woman. I just felt heard and understood. 

It was also the first time that I felt like academia or this sort of thinking could be grounded in actually trying to do something. I just became so fascinated with the women themselves, people like Chioma Opara and Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie. These were women who were writing but were also extremely active in their communities. I was learning words like “activist” and “scholar-activist”. It made sense - of course, if you’re doing research it would be geared towards actually trying to achieve something in the world. But that wasn’t what I’d been taught up until that point. 

I was having this intellectual… I don’t want to say awakening. 

Like, breakthrough.

Yeah, breakthrough, right, where it’s like, I can actually do something that makes sense for who I am as a person! But at the same time, I was getting involved with actual on-the-ground activism. I’d gone home the summer after my first year at Duke. I was intent on studying feminists in Nigeria so I kind of set myself my own research project. I just decided that that was what I was going to do. I was going to interview Nigerian women and try and understand what African feminism is or what Nigerian feminism is. I didn’t really have a plan -  I’d never done a proper research project before. I just spent the summer reaching out to different women’s organizations and talking to them about what they do. 

It turned out to not really be about the organizations themselves but about the women running them. I pretty much just decided that I was going to do anything I could to support the people who were organizing the protests and who were coming forward. Luckily, because I’d been doing this sort of research on Nigerian women’s organizations, I had a bunch of numbers for women who were running the Stand to End Rape Initiative, and all these different support organizations for survivors of sexual abuse. 

But, I realized that the people who were organizing the protests, the young women, most of us didn’t know that any of these things existed. It just started with me literally being like, okay here, I have this person’s number, can I give it to you? What can I do about it? I reached out to the organizers of the protests and joined them. I helped to organize a safe space event where it was just literally like some of the survivors and myself in my mom’s garden office, just talking. I arranged for a psychologist, a therapist from the Stand to End Rape Initiative to be there, just to talk to us and all that. 

It went from me trying to help them to me realizing, okay, I needed that space! I [also] needed to talk. I really loved the experience. The feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of other young women. There were also guys there, there were parents, marching on the streets of Lagos. I’d never felt so emotionally charged and overwhelmed at the same time. I actually lost my voice. I was by myself, my dad just dropped me off and left, but I felt connected to everyone. This was the first time I was doing something to help young women in Nigeria, but also this was the first time I saw young Nigerians doing anything about the problems (that they) were facing. The power of that was a really big driving force for me. 

After I went back to school I tried to stay in touch with We Will Not Be Silent, which was the group, and joined them as a community organizer. A lot of us were going back into the diaspora. A lot of us were in school in the UK, some of us were in the US, and some of us were in Nigeria. I created Through The Eyes of African Women as a way to tell the stories of the people that I’d met through working on that protest. After the protests happened, we had little meetings. I’d bought this tiny recorder that you plug into your phone, and I just started talking to people and recording our conversations. I talked to the psychologist that was there with us. It was really cool because this issue that we’re addressing is really painful, but at the same time, how badass are these young women! It’s weird calling them women because they’re literally the same age as me, but how badass are they for doing this, for speaking so fearlessly. I just wanted to create a platform where their voices could actually be documented, not just heard. 

One of the people that had participated in the protest, Angel (Nduka-Nwosu), she had this platform called As Equals. She just started on Twitter and asked, “Does anyone want to join a WhatsApp group for African feminists?”. I think they have about a thousand people now. So many people wanted to join, she told me about it and I joined, and through that I (learned of/met) feminists all over the continent. I want to support people like Angel. She’s sort of like a muse, she’s done this really cool thing and I want to be able to support what she’s doing. That was how I actually built my team, just joining that group and saying, “This is what I’m trying to do, if anyone wants to help out, please let me know!”. People did.

I just wanted to clarify the timeline of the different protests because so many people don’t have a background for protests in Nigeria - also EndSARS movement got much more visibility this year [2020].

The protest I’m talking about that catalyzed everything was We Will Not Be Silent. Last year [2019], we organized Say Her Name Nigeria. EndSARS already existed but it was very male-dominated. If you looked at the conversations people were having on Twitter and in real life, nobody was paying attention to the violence that women were facing by the police as well, and that summer [2018]. 

Say Her Name Nigeria was a response to the previous iteration of the End SARS movement- when it was still male dominated in 2019. There’s ambiguity about what exactly happened to some of the women but some were accused of being prostitutes and detained, and some of the policemen (although we couldn’t identify whom specifically) were soliciting sex for bail. So if the women wanted to be released they were told that they would have to commit sexual acts with the police. 

They were detained for no reason other than the fact that they were perceived to be promiscuous, because they are young women who are out at night, and they were coerced into having sex. We were really outraged. The EndSARS movement wasn’t going to do anything about it because at that point the EndSARS movement was about men who were being harassed and detained. We started Say Her Name Nigeria as a coalition [of] organizations like As Equals, Stand to End Rape Initiative, and We Will Not Be Silent, in order to spotlight the specific violence that women face and the ways that our voices are being erased through EndSARS. 

That was a starting point for women being so involved in this year’s EndSARS movement [2020]. That was the first time we really started talking about police violence and making it clear that we need to be involved in this conversation as well. But the Feminist Coalition is actually different. I’m in love with what they’re doing. I interviewed Dami [Damilola Odufuwa] before the EndSARS protests started. Dami is one of the founders of the Feminist Coalition. I was talking to her for my research. She’s also a founder of Wine and Whine Nigeria, a feminist group which was created for women to drink wine and talk about the issues that they are facing. It’s really cool, it’s fun feminism. She (Dami) was adamant in our conversations about the fact that while having groups like Wine and Whine is great, they really want to become more politically active. I didn’t think they planned for EndSARS specifically butthe Feminist Coalition was already in the works. A lot of us who had been involved in Say Her Name Nigeria previously - obviously I wasn’t in Nigeria - but it was, here’s this thing that exists, they’re doing well, let’s just all throw our support behind it. We already know that this is an important conversation. 

Do you think that feminists were given the visibility and the leadership credit they deserved for EndSARS? From an outsider’s perspective, they were recognized for their leadership and participation, but there must’ve still been conflicts over that. 

For sure. Internationally, the Feminist Coalition and the women who were involved in the protests have got a lot of recognition. I think that’s because we’ve become better at documenting what we’re doing, this is an imperative right now. A lot of the people who are a part of the coalition or are just generally involved in feminist organizations in Nigeria have been working on blogs and in the news. We’ve already recognized the power of the media and a lot of us are involved, even if in small ways. But, once things got started, people didn’t know that the (Feminist Coalition) symbol was for feminism. People were making it their profile picture supporting the Feminist Coalition! It was a shock to some people when they found out and even more so when they realized that while this (Feminist Coalition and feminist organizers) is about EndSARS, it’s also talking about LGBTQ+ people being included in the protests

There was definitely conflict in that sense. Of course, the Feminist Coalition and the feminists who were participating in the protests were huge - to me they’re the backbone and the fire behind the movement. They really helped to make the movement more organized because a lot of us had previous organizing experience. At the same time, there was the conflict of feminist values with concerns like, is Nigeria really trying to change or is it just this one issue? How far can we take it? Conflicts like the fact that even within the movement itself there’s a lot of violence towards women. People like Angel (Nduka-Nwosu) were critically discussing if we should even participate in this movement? Should we be on the streets with these men who clearly didn’t value us and didn’t support us when it came to Say Her Name Nigeria?

Since you’re working transnationally and are mostly based in the US, how do you personally relate to class and privilege in your organizing in solidarity with Nigerian and other African feminist spaces and conversations? When you travel, how do you relate to other people who are not migrating, or are migrating in different ways? 

My feminist activism began with asking people what they needed and then giving them whatever I had, or finding (resources) for them. It’s stayed that way. I was really adamant about TEAW being a platform that was supporting what already existed. It’s about recognizing the fact that I’m not there and that there are people who are. I’m really lucky to be able to stay in touch with them digitally. A big thing for me is just always, always centering their voices and perspectives and listening. I have things to contribute as well, but I try to pause as much as possible and first listen to the women that I’m working with. 

For example, my team members are all based at home [in Nigeria], they’re not migrating. Some of them can’t. Sometimes it’s easy for someone who’s located outside of Nigeria to feel optimistic and think, we can do it -  we’re gonna transform the country! But [it’s important to] recognize that actually, I’m not there. On a daily basis, Nigerian women at home are dealing with intense sexism. I have to recognize that they’re not always going to always feel as impassioned and optimistic as I feel and make room for that, and still try to find ways to keep our spirits up. A lot of that comes down to encouraging us to speak about things other than just the specific issues that we’re trying to address. 

TEAW is a celebratory platform to me. For decades, African women have been using fiction writing and other creative media to express how they’re feeling about their countries, especially since we’ve been shut out from formal politics. TEAW honors this creative side of activism and awareness. It’s about us creating fun projects and asking, how can we create stuff for us? It doesn’t always have to be looking at intense, structural or systemic issues. It can also be about creating resources to support each other and people like us. For example, at some point, even if things are super, super shit in Lagos or in Nigeria, we can look to South African feminists who are doing something that’s awesome. We can focus on what they’re doing and support that. It’s about being empathetic and staying in touch with what my team members and women that I’m working with, whose voices I’m trying to amplify, are saying, thinking, and want. It’s about creating as many avenues as possible to hear that.

Can you talk a bit more about the specialized media products that TEAW is making - how did you decide to make them and how has that process been? Interactive articles, any other special products like that. 

The way we go about curating and creating resources is based on a recognition that for most African people, especially young women, girls, and gender non conforming (GNC) people, knowledge is either inaccessible or not presented in a way that’s easy to relate with or consume. So we’re trying to find creative ways to share information, and we’re doing that in collaboration with feminist activists. For example, we’ve been working on interactive digital stories that document recent social movements, and we worked with their organizers to collect testimonies, videos and pictures. We also piloted a participatory project where we invited African women to work with us to create a digital timeline of African women’s social movements. In teams, we started conducting research, creating accompanying media etc. That was just a test run so it wasn’t completed, but we’re hoping to have more participatory and interactive projects in the future.

In 2021, I’m hoping to relaunch TEAW with more of these projects and with other activities that enable knowledge sharing for young activists, across movements. For example, I would love to start a Social Movements Lab, similar to the one I was involved in at Duke. Something that would give young African feminists opportunities to hear from and strategize with other activists around the world.

TEAW is really in its infancy, but it's built on the idea that knowledge is power. Being able to hear our own voices, learn from each other and share our own stories with us in mind enables us to radically reimagine our own lives and the world around us. 

This feels like something that needs to go down in history. I feel like people need to know exactly what young Nigerian women are thinking. People need to know the depth and complexity of our thoughts. It just grew from there. [I thought] If I’m going to do this for young Nigerian women, let me just do it for all African women and create a platform which doesn’t really just belong to us. It’s just people sending us whatever they want to say, and us creating the space for them to share, helping to make it look pretty, and documenting the work that they’re doing throughout the continent. Through that, I found my Nigerian feminist community. I actually ended up finding the Nigerian feminist community that I did not know existed. 

You can follow Anwuli’s work on Twitter at Through the Eyes of African Women. Later this year they will be sharing more information about how to donate to their initiative.

Image credit: Prii Sen

Some important news: I’m delighted to announce that Prii Sen has joined New Wave as Editorial Assistant. Prii Sen is a Hong Kong-based educator, writer, and aspiring artist, who was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She graduated from Oberlin College with a B.A. in English and Politics, specializing in decolonial literatures and feminist South Asian social movements. Prii spends her time decoding pop culture and politics and writing long essays about labor rights and the global fashion industry.  She is also currently imagining and working towards a world without borders and mass incarceration, where quality healthcare and public transport are accessible to all. Prii will be working on editorial strategy, calendar, and strengthening the New Wave community.

Ani Hao is a young feminist writer, journalist and media consultant. She reports on young feminist activism and youth-led social movements globally.

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